BLM MEETS GAA

Posted: 2020-12-28

Is it wise to name a hurling club after an INLA hunger striker?

RESTRICTIONS on foreign travel and a resulting staycation recently gave me cause to travel through West Cork, a beautiful part of the world. As I drove through Skibbereen, I passed O’Donovan Rossa GAA club, named for Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa who was born about 10 miles east of Skibbereen, near Rosscarbery.  

 

O’Donovan Rossa was a Fenian and member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). He organised the first bombings of English cities by Irish Republicans. Perhaps his most famous legacy to the movement for Irish independence was the propaganda generated around his funeral in 1915, when future Easter Rising leader Tom Clarke insisted O’Donovan Rossa’s body be sent from New York for burial in Dublin. Padraig Pearse gave the now-famous graveside oration. 

 

The GAA has a long history of naming clubs after Irish nationalist heroes and other historical figures. From Wolfe Tones of Shannon to Parnells in Coolock, and from Red Hugh’s in County Donegal to Brian Dillons’ in Cork city, there are no shortage of examples. Some names are more popular than others, with at least a dozen clubs on the island named for Patrick Sarsfield and more again honouring Robert Emmet. 

 

While 2020 will no doubt be remembered as the year Covid-19 first struck, it will also be remembered in large part for the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the public discourse it has generated around race and race relations. The debate has ranged from the appropriateness of public monuments to certain individuals to (in America at least) the acceptability of certain sports team names and mascots. 

 

Indeed 2020 has been the year that the long debate over the appropriateness of the names and logos of several American major league sports team has reached a crescendo. Most significantly, after decades of criticism, the Washington Redskins have finally bowed to pressure and agreed to change the team’s name and ditch their logo. They were, for the remainder of 2020, known simply as The Washington Football Team while they decided on a new moniker for 2021. 

 

All this gave me cause to think: is it time for the GAA to have a reckoning with its own club names? This is something almost no one is talking about. But in the same way many in the United States questioned what it said about the NFL when one of their teams used a nickname that is a racist slur, should we in Ireland ask what it says about the GAA (and the society of which it is such an important part) when dozens of clubs around the country are named after men (and it is always men) of violence? By honouring Irish Republicans and former members of the Fenians, the IRB and the IRA, does this not legitimise violence? What message does it send to members of the GAA community, to the rest of Irish society, and in particular to the community who have traditionally had little or nothing to do with the GAA (and indeed hold it in suspicion) but must still share this island? 

 

It’s not as if there aren’t other options. While most clubs are named after a local townland or parish, many more are named for saints, and some bear the names of more innocuous individuals: Tommy Larkins GFC and Micheál Breathnach GAA in Galway are named for local men who promoted Irish culture. Sean O’Heslin’s in Ballinamore, County Leitrim, is named for the man who was the early driving force behind gaelic games in the parish. 

 

If clubs must be named for more historical figures – an assumption I would question – there are many that have cross-community appeal, as acknowledged by Cuchulainn’s of Dunloy, Co. Antrim, or Setanta in Carlow. Theobald Wolfe Tone may have had designs on Irish independence, but he explicitly sought to unite Irish men of all religions. But the GAA has more often chosen to honour more controversial figures, such as the vocally pro-slavery John Mitchel who referred to black people as “an innately inferior people” and is honoured with clubs named for him in Newry, Castlebar, Tralee and beyond. 

 

Maybe the practice is understandable when one looks at the history of the Association. From its outset in the 19th century the GAA always took an Irish nationalist outlook and made no apologies for the fact. So it’s perhaps excusable that clubs with a century or so of history would bear the monikers of Liam Mellows, Padraig Pearse, Tom Clarke or Michael O’Hanrahan. 

 

But as Irish society moved on from the violent first quarter of the 20th century, the GAA’s stances on many political issues were slow to shift, and many newly founded clubs continued this tradition. Though the Association’s own website suggests it sees the removal of its rules opposing foreign games and British security forces as “contributing positively to the emergence of post-Troubles modern Ireland” I would suggest that if the GAA wants to be truly modern and inclusive, it should give some thought to what certain club names say to the ‘other tradition’ on the island. 

 

In writing this article I was reminded of East Belfast GAC, a GAA club founded last year. Despite there having been no GAA club in the predominantly loyalist area in half a century, East Belfast are approaching 200 signed-up members. They are also explicitly cross-community in approach, with the club motto, ‘Together’, written on their crest in English, Irish and Ulster-Scots.  

 

Is this not a model for the rest of the country? An un-controversial club name and motto that attempt to to honour no particular faith,  political belief or historical heritage in an exclusionary way. East Belfast GAC is a real attempt at inclusivity. 

 

One cannot say the same for Kevin Lynch’s Hurling Club (KLHC) in Dungiven, County Derry (right), which is among the most egregious examples of what I’m talking about. Named for the INLA man who died on Hunger Strike at the Maze Prison in 1981, the club claims to honour the fact that Lynch had a successful hurling career at underage level, but it is clearly also a homage to his paramilitary activity. 

 

Apart from it being difficult to imagine anyone of the loyalist/unionist/Protestant tradition joining a club named  after a member of an organisation that committed acts on violence on their community, try to imagine what such a move would have done for cross-community relations in Dungiven at a time of already heightened tensions. I can only assume the equivalent would have been to name a soccer or rugby club after Michael Stone and see how many Catholics would join. 

 

To those who would suggest that Protestants were unlikely to be interested in hurling anyway, I would point out that one of the most famous unionists of all time, Sir Edward Carson, hurled for Trinity College; evidence that the sectarian divide that means gaelic games in Northern Ireland are an almost exclusively Catholic and nationalist pursuit is more than likely a result of political positions taken by the GAA in its 136 year history, rather than any natural Protestant disinterest in the games themselves.

 

As a more recent offender in this category (with the name-change taking place in the early 1980s), KLHC feels like an especially pointed dig at the other tradition on the island, given what Lynch had done to earn his notoriety. But even the continued existence in West Cork of a club honouring the aforementioned Fenian isn’t a great look, with most modern-day historians characterising O’Donovan Rossa as a psychopathic murderer who thought nothing of killing civilians if it would forward his political goals. If most right-thinking people (including GAA members) condemned the IRA for bombing civilians in Britain throughout the Troubles it seems hypocritical to continue to honour the man in whose wake such acts followed. 

 

Some might argue that distance should be taken into account, with O’Donovan Rossa dead more than a century, and his worst deeds even further in the past. But would they argue the same in defence of Oliver Cromwell’s Rugby Club or Prince Billy’s FC? (I should note I’m not aware of the existence of either: the loyalist tradition on this island does not have the same proclivity for honouring its heroes in such a way). 

 

I feel I should point out that I have been a member of the GAA since the age of 8. I acknowledge that the Association does so much really well and I genuinely buy in (rightly or wrongly) to its claim to be the greatest amateur sporting organisation in the world. I certainly am aware of no other organisation quite like it. And I am not necessarily suggesting that any or all of the aforementioned names be removed from GAA clubs. (I should also say I’m not enamoured with the even more common tradition in the GAA of naming clubs after Catholic saints, but one issue at a time!). 

 

Yet I do believe that organisations like the GAA have a responsibility to set an example in the community and to be as inclusive as possible, and so maybe a conversation on the matter is due. Perhaps the practice of naming clubs after people should cease entirely. It rarely happens in rugby or soccer, or most other sports clubs around Ireland. The GAA is peculiar in that respect, as indeed it is in many others. 

 

After whom or what we name things like streets or buildings or clubs makes a statement about who we are as people, organisations and societies, and who we believe should be admired. If a more positive and inclusive approach from the GAA can happen in the loyalist enclave of East Belfast, it can surely happen elsewhere. 

 

EAMON MURPHY, December 2020